Headlines 30 December, 2011
By Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives.
31/12/2011- Today, millions of Europeans are afraid and frustrated as they face unemployment, loss of savings and pensions, radically reduced social benefits, and other economic hardships. Their fears are warranted, because the current financial crisis is undermining the very union that was established to heal Europe’s wounds at the end of World War II. But, in the midst of the general suffering, one group – the Roma – has been ignored. Europe’s largest and most disadvantaged ethnic minority, with a population equal to that of Greece, millions of Roma are trapped in extreme poverty and ignorance, compounded by widespread discrimination. Indeed, the 2009 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey found that Roma experience more severe discrimination than any other ethnic-minority group in Europe. Hard times provoke aggressive, vindictive, and intolerant attitudes, and Roma have become scapegoats in this economic crisis. In fact, Roma-bashing is helping far-right political parties to mobilize and nationalist leaders to win votes. Even some mainstream political parties have resorted to using anti-Roma rhetoric that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. But the Roma have refrained from reciprocating the sometimes lethal violence inflicted on them.
Six years ago, the Open Society Foundation, the World Bank, and nine national governments addressed the issue by elaborating a step-by-step plan to integrate the Roma into European society. Known as the “Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005-15,” the program prioritized four areas: health, housing, education, and employment. This year, the European Commission has requested that all EU member states develop and implement strategies to promote Roma social inclusion in these areas. The Decade of Roma Inclusion provides a blueprint for how to achieve integration and equality, and to eliminate unlawful discrimination. But these goals can be achieved only if the EU resolves its financial crisis, embarks on a sustainable recovery, and, above all, becomes an inclusive economy.Otherwise, Roma will inevitably serve as the EU’s convenient scapegoats. Social exclusion is not only morally and legally repugnant; it also defies economic sense. Roma are Europe’s youngest and fastest-growing population with an average age of 25, in contrast to the European average of 40. According to recent World Bank research, Roma comprise approximately 23% of new entrants into Bulgaria’s labor market. In Romania, the figure is 21%. The vast majority of working-age Roma, however, lack the requisite education to compete successfully in the labor market.
By continuing to shunt Roma children into “special” schools, where expectations are low and results still lower, EU member states are squandering hundreds of millions of euros annually in productivity and tax revenues. The message is simple: improving opportunities for Roma is morally right and economically smart. Integration is possible. I grew up in a small, impoverished town in central Serbia, where my parents lifted themselves out of extreme poverty and deprivation. My father obtained a high school diploma and became a taxi driver, while my mother attended university and worked in a state office. We were proud of the two-room house my parents managed to build before we moved into a larger home in an ethnically mixed area. Having grown up in a family that struggled to rise from poverty to the middle class, I went on to study law and completed an NGO-management training program at Harvard University. Thousands of Roma have made similar journeys. And hundreds of thousands more are capable of doing the same.
Europe cannot continue to marginalize one of its own minorities; anti-Roma prejudice and unlawful discrimination must not go unchallenged. The status quo is damaging the lives of millions of Roma, but it is also hurting Europe economically and morally. The historical truism applies here – Europe’s greatness will be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members.
© Project Syndicate
FRANCE MAKES IT HARDER TO BECOME FRENCH
France will be making it harder for foreigners to seek French citizenship as of January. Critics say the new requirements, which include tough language tests and allegiance to “French values”, are an electoral ploy that panders to the far right.
30/12/2011- Foreigners seeking French nationality face tougher requirements as of January 1, when new rules drawn up by Interior Minister Claude Guéant come into force. Candidates will be tested on French culture and history, and will have to prove their French language skills are equivalent to those of a 15-year-old mother tongue speaker. They will also be required to sign a new charter establishing their rights and responsibilities. “Becoming French is not a mere administrative step. It is a decision that requires a lot of thought”, reads the charter, drafted by France’s High Council for Integration (HCI). In a more obscure passage, the charter suggests that by taking on French citizenship, “applicants will no longer be able to claim allegiance to another country while on French soil”, although dual nationality will still be allowed. Guéant, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party, described the process as “a solemn occasion between the host nation and the applicant”, adding that migrants should be integrated through language and “an adherence to the principals, values and symbols of our democracy”. He stressed the importance of the secular state and equality between women and men: rhetoric perceived largely as a snipe at Muslim applicants, who make up the majority of the 100,000 new French citizens admitted each year. France’s interior minister has made it clear that immigrants who refuse to “assimilate” into French society should be denied French citizenship. Earlier this year, Guéant intervened personally to ensure an Algerian-born man living in France was denied French nationality because of his “degrading attitude” to his French wife. That followed an earlier push by France’s former Immigration Minister Eric Besson to revise existing laws in order to strip polygamists of their acquired citizenship.
Pandering to the far right?
Guéant has come under criticism numerous times over the past year for allegedly pandering to the whims of far-right voters in his efforts to secure a second term for Sarkozy in 2012. The UMP has edged progressively further right over the course of Sarkozy’s term, even as the far-right National Front party continued to bite into its pool of voters. Marine Le Pen, the popular leader of the anti-immigration National Front, has been campaigning in favour of a ban on dual citizenship in France, which she blames for encouraging immigration and weakening French values. While several UMP members have endorsed her stance, Guéant has stopped short of calling for a ban on dual nationality, largely because of the legal difficulties such a move would entail. But the interior minister has taken a hard line on immigration, announcing plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants coming to France annually from 200,000 to 180,000 and calling for those convicted of felony to be expelled from the country. François Hollande, the Socialist Party’s candidate in forthcoming presidential elections, described Guéant’s stance as “the election strategy of a right wing ready to do anything in order to hold on to power”, adding that his own party would tackle all criminals “irrespective of their nationality”. Under further proposals put forward by the ruling UMP party, non-French children who would normally be naturalised at the age of 18 (those who are born in the country and have spent most of their childhood there) would instead have to formally apply to the state. Should Sarkozy and his party secure a second term in 2012, analysts predict a return to an immigration stance that hasn’t been seen in France for almost two decades. They point to a case of déjà vu: in 1993 Charles Pasqua, then France’s interior minister, coined the slogan “zero immigration” and introduced a bill that made it virtually impossible for children born in France to non-French parents to be naturalised.
© France 24
CZECH MEDIA EXAGGERATED REPORTING OF BRAWL THAT UNLEASHED ETHNIC UNREST IN THE NORTH
29/12/2011- News server Aktuálně.cz has revealed more detailed, precise information from the police investigation into a brawl earlier this year that was reported by the media as a racially motivated attack committed by Romani people against ethnic Czechs. Sensationalist reporting of the incident was a factor in sparking the subsequent ethnic unrest that took place in the Šluknov foothills this past fall. Four months later, the facts of the case differ substantially from the initial media reports of it. As it turns out, there is a high probability that the brawl was part of an ongoing battle between two local criminal gangs of drug dealers. "From the investigation conducted by Aktuálně.cz and from the police investigation it is evident that this was a violent incident between two groups of residents of Rumburk and the surrounding area who already knew one another, who had encountered one another more than once that same night prior to the brawl, and who mutually provoked one another," the news server reports.
Aktuálně.cz also describes the event as a brawl between four or five people on each side of the conflict. The others who were present are said to have been onlookers or to have even done their best to prevent the violence. The news server reports that this updated version of the events has been confirmed not only by witnesses, but by people familiar with the police investigation file. Moreover, with one exception, the persons involved were already of interest to police. News server Romea.cz warned at the start of September that the media were reporting the incident in an unethical way because they were not giving the Romani participants in the conflict any room to present their side of the story, which made it likely that the public was receiving significantly biased reporting. The version of the story which Romea.cz published at the time as a possible alternative description of the course of events corresponds in many aspects to the findings now published by Aktuálně.cz: "We were walking home from the discotheque. There were 12 of us, not 20. A local guy ran up to us and said six white guys were beating up a Romani man. We ran over there and five of us, not all 12, got into it with some white guys. During the fighting, both sides were cursing each other as black or white swine. The version of events the media has reported is completely out of touch with reality," a Romani participant in the incident told us at the time.
The distorted publicity given to this incident and to other violent clashes between ethnic Czechs and Romani people unleashed social unrest in the region which lasted for several weeks. Every weekend, several towns in the Šluknov foothills experienced anti-Romani demonstrations, some of which were attended by the neo-Nazi Workers' Social Justice Party (DSSS).
CZECH COURT CONFIRMS STIFF SENTENCES FOR RACE HATE ARSON
The Czech Supreme Court has confirmed exemplary sentences on four Czech who atacked the house of a Roma family with Molotov cocktails
28/12/2011- The Czech Supreme Court (NS) has confirmed sentences of between 20 and 22 years in prison for four Czechs who took part in an arson attack on a Roma family that left a two-year-old nearly dead and scarred for the rest of her life from burns. Court spokesman Petr Knötig said on Wednesday it had found the appeal on behalf of the men “unsubstantiated,” without giving further details. The attack took place in April 2009 when the four threw Molotov cocktails into the family’s house at Vítkov in the north-east of the country. Three people were injured in the attack, the most serious the two-year old who suffered burns to around 80 percent of her body and only survived thanks to her own will power and top medical help. An earlier appeal in March against the sentences for attempted murder with racial motivation said that the original court verdicts, described as exemplary at the time, were tough but not excessive. The original verdict from an Ostrava court said it was clear that the attackers knew that their victims could be killed. A final appeal is possible to the Constitutional Court, but it rarely accepts appeals against sentences handed down for criminal violence.
© Czech Position
WOMAN DIDN'T WANT HELP FROM 'DARK-SKINNED' CLERK (Sweden)
A woman's refusal to be served by a "dark-skinnned" clerk at the local office of a public agency is not a crime, a Swedish court has ruled.
28/12/2011- On two occasions within the span of a few days, the woman simply refused to go up to the desk at which the clerk in question sat, the local Nerikes Allehanda (NA) newspaper reported. In explaining her decision, the woman explained to other clerks as well as a manager at the office that she didn't want to be served by a black person. The incident resulted in the woman being charged with harassment, with an alternative charge of insulting behaviour. In an initial review of the case, the Örebro District Court acquitted the woman, noting that she had never directly confronted the clerk in question about her reasons for not wanting to be served. As the derogatory remarks were only mentioned to the clerk's colleagues, the court ruled that the woman had no intention of insulting the clerk. The case was nevertheless appealed to the Göta Court of Appeal, which on Tuesday ruled as well that the woman wasn't guilty of committing any crime, even if he behaviour could be viewed as insulting by the clerk.
© The Local - Sweden
WEBSITE POST PROMPTS FEARS OF ONLINE ANTI-SEMITISM IN ROME (Italy)
27/12/2011- Posts targeting Italian Jews on a virulently anti-Semitic website have prompted alarm. The website HolyWar.org late last week ran photographs of nine prominent Italian Jews, calling them “Nazi-Jewish members of the Italian Jewish mafia cupola” and “slaves of Satan” who want to destroy the Roman Catholic church. The pictures were copied from a list of contributors to the website of the Rome Jewish community. A statement from the Rome Jewish Community said it had reported the matter to the Italian postal police. HolyWar subsequently removed the page. For some time, anti-Judaism, especially that expressed online, has assumed ever more aggressive tones,” the community statement said. “HolyWar is one of the most virulently anti-Jewish websites, full of sections that are all built around one theme: a fierce anti-Semitism that is exuded from every page.” Among other things, the site includes numerous anti-Semitic cartoons, the text of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and documents accusing Jews of ritual murder. The Rome Jewish Community statement said that HolyWar is run by a Norwegian, Alfred Olsen. Renato Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the HolyWar posts “disgusting and unacceptable ravings” that had made “dark threats” against contributors to the Rome Jewish community website. He warned that “a dangerous campaign of hatred and criminal incitement” was under way.
© JTA News
MUSLIM WAR GRAVES ATTACKED (France)
27/12/2011- Thirty war graves of Muslim soldiers who fought in World War I have been attacked and defaced in the southern city of Carcassonne. Racist insults and swastikas were painted on the graves, which are identified by the Islamic symbols of the star and crescent. Slogans including “France for the French” and “Arabs out” were painted on some of the gravestones, reported daily newspaper Le Figaro. The graves of Muslim soldiers in the same graveyard were attacked earlier this year in September. Abdallah Zekri, president of a body that monitors Islamophobia, condemned the attacks on the graves of soldiers who “died for France.” He pointed to a “significant and very worrying increase in Islamophobia in France.” He said such attacks are up by 34 percent in 2011. In November alone, these included six fires at mosques in the country. The graves were cleaned and a religious ceremony to honour the dead is planned for Tuesday morning.
© The Local - France
SWISS VILLAGE IN UPROAR OVER ASYLUM CENTRE
Local officials from Bettwil, in northern Switzerland, have collected almost 10,000 signatures against federal plans to build a refugee centre in the village of 560 inhabitants.
27/12/2011- Bettwil has been mobilizing for weeks against federal plans to accommodate up to 100 asylum seekers in a former military barracks in the village, located in the canton of Aargau. The federal government plans to host between 80 and 100 refugees for a period not exceeding six months. In the village, cars carry protest stickers and streets are covered with posters that read: “Yes to solidarity, no to the asylum centre”, or “Massive asylum centre, no,” the Neue Zürcher Zeitung reports. Before Christmas, both the mayor and a committee representing Bettwil citizens travelled to Aargau to bring the signatures and convey their opposition to the government’s plan. According to Jacqueline Wiederkehr, one of the members of the committee, the Federal Council failed to give the people of Bettwil a chance to voice their opinion prior to the decision.
The mayor of the remote village, Wolfgang Schibler, went further, saying cantonal and federal authorities had acted with “arrogance.” Schibler has denied accusations of xenophobia, and is seeking to distance himself from extreme right-wing groups supporting his cause. According to Weiderkehr, the asylum centre will bring crime to a village that boasts a single restaurant and a shop. “We have zero criminality now, but if, all of the sudden we get 100 young North Africans with nothing to do, criminality will inevitably rise,” she said. Protesters have decided to lie low until the next meeting with federal and cantonal authorities, set to take place on January 5th. Between January and November this year, more than 20,000 people have requested asylum in Switzerland, 41.5 percent more than the same period in 2010. The country is suffering from a shortage of accommodation for asylum seekers. In recent weeks, the Swiss press has reported that several refugees have been forced to sleep on the street due to a lack of beds in official centres.
© The Local - Switzerland
PROTESTS OVER RUSSIAN 'GAY PROPAGANDA' BILL
27/12/2011- Gay rights activists staged protests in the central Russian city of Kostroma Monday against plans to impose fines for the promotion of homosexuality. Last month, a similar ban was shelved in St. Petersburg, Russia's second city, after MPs questioned its "legal definitions". The bill, pushed by the ruling United Russia party and widely expected to be passed by Kostroma's Duma in the first of three required readings Tuesday, would outlaw any gay pride events. It would also allow authorities to impose fines of up to 50,000 rubles ($1,600) for "public activities promoting homosexuality (sodomy and lesbianism), bisexualism and transgender identity" as well as pedophilia among minors. The promotion of "religious sects" would also be punishable by fines. Eight campaigners staged protests in Kostroma's city center Monday holding posters demanding equal rights and condemning the treatment of gays and lesbians in Russia.
The authorities claim the bill was "aimed at preventing sex crimes against minors," but Yelena Kostyuchenko, a journalist with the liberal Novaya Gazeta and gay rights campaigner, said homosexuality was a "biological quality" and could not be promoted. She also warned against the danger of the bill's "vague criteria", saying it was not clear quite what was to be defined as "gay propaganda". Igor Kochetkov, head of the St. Petersburg LGBT group Coming Out, said the bill was being ostracized to divert public attention from "real political and social problems" as the Kremlin tries to appease anti-government protesters. Russia has seen its largest protests in some two decades over alleged vote fraud in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party at recent parliamentary polls.
BULGARIA TO FINALLY RATIFY DISABLED PEOPLE RIGHTS CONVENTION
26/12/2011- Bulgaria is finally set to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, a high-ranking MP has announced. "Bulgaria is about to ratify the Convention for the rights of disabled people at the beginning of 2012," MP Svetlana Angelova from the ruling center-right party GERB, a Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Labor and Social Policy Committee, said in Ruse Sunday, as cited by BTA. In her words, the ratification of the UN document has been expected for a long time by the disabled people in Bulgaria, which is one of the few states in the world that has failed to ratify it. The Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 13 December 2006 and opened for signature on 30 March 2007. Following ratification by the 20th party, it came into force on 3 May 2008. As of December 2011, it has 153 signatories and 107 parties, including the European Union. Angelova explained that once the Convention is ratified it will lead to a number of legislation amendments in order to protect disabled people in Bulgaria against discrimination in education, healthcare, and environment. She added that the Bulgarian Penal Code will be amended in 2012 to criminalize the evasion of social security payments.